Short Story #36. Stickfighting Days (Olufemi Terry)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the ace of spades.

Story: Stickfighting Days, by Olufemi Terry [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: This story won the 2010 Caine prize for African writing, one of the judges saying that Sierra Leone-born Terry “presents a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception” (from the Guardian).  It describes the fighting exploits of some boys who live on a dump and scavenge for a living.  It is a story of violence, which initially is controlled by certain implicit – and explicit – rules, but which at the end gets out of control and leads to death.  I don’t enjoy reading about violence, and had to push myself to finish this story.  I found it hard to feel any sympathy for Raul, the protagonist, and one important scene, in which he offers an apology to an opponent for certain tactics he had used in a fight, I found quite unconvincing. The apology seems to spring from values which have up to then not been identified in Raul, and which would be appropriate coming from an Eton or Harrow lad, “I say, old chap, awfully sorry about that…”  I really did not have a clear idea of who Raul is, or of why I should identify with him.


#52. A Severed Head (Iris Murdoch)

Book: A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

Genre and Year of Publication: Fiction, 1961

Where I got it: The Open Door second hand book shop

Length: 205 pages

Briefly, it’s not a murder mystery, despite the title!  It’s a look at marriage, adultery, incest, and “love” amongst a group of people who keep forming and re-forming liaisons.

Comments: I first encountered Iris Murdoch’s work in a philosophy undergrad class, and did not realise for some time that the novelist of the same name is in fact the same person.  But Murdoch’s novels – this one at any rate – are highly philosophical.  What is love?  Can relationships be permanent?  Where does one draw the fine line between use and abuse of people?  Why do we strain to keep others in our possession?  This novel starts out with a classic and rather simple situation of a man, his wife, and his mistress, but quickly becomes very complex as they break up with each other and realign in new relationships, which in turn break up and the same people form yet new liaisons, or return to previous ones… who will “love” whom next?  What is “true” love, if such a thing exists?

I found this novel gripping, but was glad that it ended when it did, as much more would have been too sordid.

Challenges: Back to the Classics challenge for the category “A Classic by a Woman Author”

Short Story #35. Sea Oak (George Saunders)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the seven of hearts.

Story: Sea Oak, by George Saunders [online here]

Comments: I liked this story, though it’s not a genre that I would normally appreciate.  Thomas, who works as a stripper, his sister and his cousin, both single mothers of very young kids, poorly educated, unemployed, and “lazy”, and his aunt Bernie, a figure of self-sacrificing goodness, live in a run-down housing complex which is very dangerous for the kids.  Bernie dies suddenly.  And then comes back from the dead, with a message to the others about how to get out of their poverty-trap.  But she is no longer the good, clean-mouthed person that she was in real life… Will the family take her message on board?

Poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor housing, the aspirations – or the lack of them – of people in that situation, are described in an undramatic, realistic way.  This makes the return of Bernie from the dead all the more puzzling – why does Saunders use this format?  What is he trying to tell us through the various paradoxes?

I loved the dialogue, especially that of Min and Jade.

#51. Men at Arms (Evelyn Waugh)

Book: Men at Arms, by Evelyn Waugh

Genre and Year of Publication: WW II Fiction, 1952

Where I got it: Lent to me by a friend (VA)

Length: 246 pages

Briefly, it follows the military career of Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old Englishman, who enlists for the army at the outbreak of World War II, through his training period and initial posting to Senegal.

Comments: This book is full of dry wit.  Allegedly based loosely on Waugh’s own war-time experience, it describes an army which is confused, chaotic, unclear about its objectives and largely operating with very, very limited information about what is going on elsewhere.  Most of Crouchback’s time with his division is spent awaiting orders to move elsewhere.  There is an element of boarding school to some of the adventures, and to the whole tone of upholding the ancient traditions of the regiment.  Waugh’s makes his point about the pointlessness of the war with humour and lightness of touch.  Crouchback is a likeable character, and the reader is on his side when his time in West Africa ends in his being sent home in disgrace. 

This is the first book of a trilogy, and I would certainly read the two subsequent volumes, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender.

There are many reviews online; I like the one at

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge for the category “A Wartime Classic”

Short Story #34. An Unexpected Death (Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the seven of clubs.

Story: An Unexpected Death, by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa [translated from the Portuguese; in The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: There is more than one unexpected death in this story, two of them accidental, and one from a heart attack.  The storyline weaves from one person to another, showing how these events are interrelated because of their effects on various other people, though separate in time.  The point of view constantly changes, so that at times I felt as if I was sliding around trying to keep my balance on an icy surface.  The story ends with a detailed description of the mangled head of a man who has been crushed by a lift.  I found it grotesque and unnecessary.  I’m not sure what the writer hoped to achieve?  If his intent was to invoke revulsion, it certainly worked in my case.

Short Story #33. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Dylan Thomas)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the ten of spades.  If I had kept up with the DMI challenge of reading one story per week, I would have drawn this story in August.  Definitely more seasonal in November, I thought.

Story: A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas.  I listened to the audio version, read by the author, here.

Comments: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!  There are no other words to describe this.  Each phrase is a masterpiece.  I will listen to it again at Christmas, and at all the Christmases… and perhaps sometimes even in August.

Short Story #32. Gooseberries (Anton Chekhov)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the six of hearts.

Story: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (available online here)

Comments: According to a dream dictionary, “To see or eat gooseberries in your dream suggests that you are enjoying your time of leisure.”  Is that a universal meaning which Chekhov drew on, or is the dream dictionary basing itself on this story?  In either case, that’s exactly what Nicholai Ivanich does in the tale-within-the-tale here.  He has dreamed all his life of owning a country house with land and all that goes with it, including a gooseberry bush.  And though he starts out as a city-dwelling civil servant, he saves and scrimps and eventually marries a rich widow and makes her too live so frugally that she dies, and then in middle age he is able to buy his longed-for estate, and plant his gooseberry bushes, and act the part of the squire.  Ivan, his brother and the teller of the tale-within-the-tale, visits him when the gooseberries are served at dinner.  Nicholai relishes them, though to Ivan they are bitter.

Ivan tells this tale when he and his travelling companion Bourkin are sheltering from winter rain as unexpected guests at the house of Aliokhin.  He then launches into a tirade about how life should be lived, doing good while one is young and able; about the injustice of poverty and ignorance; about dreams unfulfilled… his idealism does not really inspire or engage his hearers.

So – what are we to think?  Nicholai attains his life’s dream, and is happy, but according to his brother his happiness must be feigned or illusory because the gooseberries are, in fact, sour.  But perhaps to Nicholai they really are sweet?  Whose perception is right?  How can one say that someone else’s perception is illusory (or even that he is lying) simply because it is different to one’s own experience?  And the impassioned speech of Ivan – is it all a refusal of responsibility, this cry “If I were young…” Why does one have to be young to start living the good life?

The most remarkable thing for me in this story is the absence of any explicit reference to a source of morality.  By what standard is Ivan judging what is good?  What is at the basis of his belief system?  Is there some allegedly objective set of norms for guiding human behaviour, or can each one make it up as s/he goes along?

Most of all, perhaps, after reading this story, I really want to go and swim outdoors in the rain!  The description sounded wonderful!